Public opinion Polls are only as good as the pollsters and the questions they ask. It’s easy to skew the results, either intentionally or not, and poll results always should be viewed with some suspicion.

Take Congress, which like Rodney Daingerfield gets no respect these days.

The public’s approval of our Senators and Representatives is hovering around 10 per cent. Compared with some past polls, this makes the institution about as popular as a Communist takeover of the United States and less popular than Paris Hilton, BP during the Gulf oil spill, banks, and lawyers. Even the spin doctors can’t make those numbers look good.

National Public Radio recently suggested an explanation for the dismal poll results, speculating that the low ratings mean that Congress is ignoring the will of the people, and the people resent it. The NPR report did not specifically address horse slaughter, but it raises an important question: Does the legislative process aid or thwart the will of the people when it comes to slaughter? To answer that question, we need to ask another one: what do we, the people, actually want.

Pro and Con

A majority in the United States opposes horse slaughter, according to Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, sponsor of S. 1176 (the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011). Is this the will of the people?

My perception has been that there are three distinct groups: a small percentage of people who are actively opposing horse slaughter, a small group who are actively in favor, and an indifferent—and largely silent—majority. I put that theory to Nancy Perry, Senior Vice President of Government Relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Both Perry and the ASPCA are tireless advocates for animal welfare.  She disagreed with my assessment:

The majority has not been silent on the issue of slaughter, Perry said. In fact, she explained, the ASPCA has been "inundated with calls from people from all over the country who are opposed to slaughter. There is a firestorm on the issue right now."

PopVox.com, a web site that tracks public opinion on issues before Congress, attaches some numbers to the storm: 81 per cent in support of the House of Representatives version of the anti-slaughter bill, 77 per cent in favor of the Senate version.

Organizations on record at PopVox.com supporting the legislation include the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute, the International Fund for Horses, the Equine Welfare Alliance, Inc., Habitat for Horses, Americans Against Horse Slaughter, Respect4Horses, Veterinarians for Equine Welfare, the Animal Law Coalition, Soulful Equine, and Another Chance for Horses. The list does not include the many grassroots groups that probably don’t have time to vote because they’re active on the front lines taking care of abused and neglected horses and raising money to educate horse owners.

On record opposing the legislation at PopVox.com is United Organizations for the Horse. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners also have taken stands against anti-slaughter proposals.

The American Horse Council does not have a position on the anti-slaughter legislation. A survey done by the Kentucky Horse Council of its members in 2009 found that just over half the people responding (51 per cent) agreed with this statement: "Any horse that is unwanted & unsellable may be slaughtered provided that it is done in a humane way." A much smaller number (15 per cent) said that "only those horses that are aged, diseased, or unsound should be slaughtered." One-fifth of the respondents (21 per cent) opposed slaughter for any reason.

Power of the Horse

None of these numbers are carved in stone, and it’s always difficult to know whether poll results represent the will of all the people or merely the will of those interested enough in an issue to voice an opinion. Either way, it’s time for Congress to take action—one way or the other—on horse slaughter.

Perry is "guardedly optimistic" about passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act during the current Congressional session.

"The support for the anti-slaughter legislation is fabulously bipartisan," Perry said, and she’s right. The House bill was introduced by a Republican, Rep. Dan Burton; the Senate bill was introduced by a Democrat, Sen. Landrieu. Co-sponsors come from both sides of the aisles.

"The power of the horse is amazing," Perry added.

On that, at least, everyone can agree.